Story Excerpt

Book of Hours

by Robert Mangeot
 

BookOfHours_Hank-Blaustein
Art by Hank Blaustein

No self-respecting pro would let his doom get this impending. Last year I’d been wandering the Marchesa Ruggieri’s Lombard estate, not hurting anybody, rummaging among her valuables. In her drawing room I’d come across a rare medieval manuscript. An illuminated book of hours, to us in one form or another of the manuscript business, a devotional meant for moments of inner reflection. Her particular devotional had fetched a not-too-shabby price even after the gentleman’s discount. Problem was, tonight found me back in the Marchesa’s drawing room and doubled over a high-res photo of her manuscript, the Marchesa asking me if I remembered her lost treasure. Yep, tonight I had ample reason—if not much time—for a little professional perspective.

The Marchesa nodded, and the Corsican slab of goon stopped pinning me and thudded a meaty elbow to my ribs.

I never said she was asking nicely.

The Marchesa loomed over me, tallness and darkness itself. “You stole this from me.”

The old Ed would have shrugged my signature whaddaya-gonna-do shrug here, let instincts and fast thinking take over. I’d have talked things out. The New Me said, “Sure.”

The New Me got another elbowing. When I could breathe again, the Marchesa thrust my head down atop the photo. Whoever did her nails must have used a whetstone.

“Look at it,” she said.

I looked. Maybe it was my extreme close-up, but tonight I caught every fleck of her manuscript’s gilded edges, every burst of its hand-painted lapis lazuli blues and china greens. Mostly, I had newfound appreciation for those Flemish craftsmen and their eye for impending doom. Captured there on parchment, in a garden overrun with acanthus and ivy, a courtly knight gave the full on-bended-knee treatment to a fair and regal blonde. The slightest of beatific smiles crossed her face, and she held her hands clasped tight to her flowing gown, which meant she kept the dagger tucked up her sleeve.

Me and blondes. Long story. It ended in this return visit to the Marchesa’s drawing room.

The Marchesa said, “You understand what it means to me.”

Not at the time, no. At the time her Cane Corso had started baying, and I’d been packing whatever I could as fast I could. A medieval manuscript in excellent condition was the sort of thing a guy with spare bag space and bubble wrap took along. It had been only after I’d run for the Lombard hills that my recently retired partner Gus had raised his German brow and declared Sir Chumpsalot a genuine fifteenth-century masterpiece. A commissioned masterpiece for none other than Pope Alexander VI, a.k.a. Rodrigo Borgia, way-back-when head of the same Borgias whose red-bull banner hung over the Marchesa’s fireplace.

She spread atop her desk a road map of Italy and stabbed a stiletto fingernail onto a town a few hours’ drive east, where Lombard hills ran smack into a whole lot of Alps.

“It is here,” she said. “You will get it back.”

I took it on faith that old Alexander’s manuscript had defied black-market whims and landed only up the strada from her. The Marchesa hated me so damn much I could trust every word she hissed.

“Sure,” I said, a touch meekly.

Another Corsican tenderizing later, I came around to the Marchesa saying, “Fontanetti buys it to vex me.”

That name had me vexed myself, if the pit opening in my stomach was any guide. Ugo Fontanetti was high-power connected, a former Italian minister of this, that, and the other. Ugo was a regular in the lifestyle rags and tabloids for his weekender house parties of glitz and just-add-vodka scandal. He had juice, the kind of juice that convinced art thieves seeking long lives to stick with county squires and spinster matrons.

“Sure,” I said, and the Corsican treated me to another elbowing. I used the time not seeing or breathing to consider if doom had properties sort of like water. In a flood you could get only so wet.

“He is a degenerate,” the Marchesa said. “Rob whatever you wish from him. But you will get my devotional. Tonight.”

Sure, I didn’t say. It wasn’t that I had no clue how, which was true. I only had so many ribs.

 

It was times such as this, the sun dipping below the Alps and snow-traced pines framed in dusk, a Corsican foot soldier tearing our Fiat through lakeside hamlets like this was the Mobster Grand Prix, that a guy ought to reflect on his career choices. A supposedly smart guy like me could have gone into anything. Art photography, for example. I could have snapped pictures of Flemish manuscripts and charged the owners major coin per hour. A way better racket than gentleman thieving.

Case in point: Damned if I did. The Marchesa had me skulking into a mountain retreat I’d never vetted. Hadn’t walked the grounds, hadn’t stepped out the getaway, hadn’t planned, rehearsed, recalibrated. Never mind this particular chalet belonged to a Signore drummed out of office but not from power.

Case further in point: Damned if I didn’t. The Corsicans had it in their heads that last year I’d gentlemanly operated in Provence without a license. I might have done that. Now in their heads I owed four million euro reparations plus expenses to collect. I was working that off, the Marchesa covering my payments while I got her stuff back. Had the Corsicans asked, I could have shown how their accounting had more holes than a fish trap, but they never asked. Not even less-than-nicely.

Cassius the muscle said, “Lady’s book. Is valuable?”

Apparently my Corsican shadow did more than top speed. He could talk too. I’d dubbed him Cassius because to now he’d given me only grunts and elbows, never a name. The Sig in his waistband, though, it had a lean and hungry look.

“Mruh,” Cassius said. “Is how much?”

“Not worth it, my friend. At any price. You know what else I stole off the Marchesa? A poison ring. With an actual compartment for hemlock. How is that for howlingly-ill portents? I took it anyway, and here’s where it got me.”

Cassius muttered a while. He said, “Bosses say asshole has big book collection. Big books, big money.”

Aha. And here I’d thought they’d sent Cassius along for his wit. “News to me.”

“I see picture of asshole. Fancy man. Drives sweetest Bentley.”

“Okay.”

But it wasn’t, and not because I had a beef with Bentleys. From how Cassius muttered nonstop and glanced too much at me and not enough at the mountain switchbacks, he intended on using that Sig tonight.

Yep, no self-respecting thief lets doom get this impending.

Good thing I wasn’t self-respecting anymore.

 

The moon had broken the horizon when we reached Ugo’s stretch of foothills. In my lap sat a binder with what chalet scouting the Marchesa’s newly acquired boyfriend Gus had conducted so far. That Gus, as in my retired partner the planning genius. Same long story that got me here. His precision handwriting listed in German a month’s worth of comings and goings and Ugo’s crowded social calendar. Weekends his chalet was hopping, but Monday through Thursday Ugo liked spending in Milan, where supposedly he was tonight for a fashion gala. It seemed formerly public funds had bought Ugo a museum-grade security package. A reliable ticket past high-tech was always the human element, as in a caretaker who spent evenings in town having a snootful of grappa. Around eleven o’clock, per Gus and his scouting, the guy would hike weaving back to the chalet and fumble at Ugo’s side-entry keypad. German reliability. I’d miss that when I was gone.

Cassius zoomed us through another lakeside village. I admit, his guaranteeing half of Lombardy would remember a Fiat blazing over the cobblestones wounded what scraps were left of my pride.

“If it were me,” I said, “I’d ease by the cafe and check that our caretaker is getting his grappa on.”

Cassius did, and the caretaker was, ensconsed at a window table where the German handwriting said he’d be. Same table, same ample jowls and thick glasses from his binder photo. Same vibe of laser intensity too. He hit the grappa regularly but absently, as if so engrossed in his reading that each sip doubled as punctuation.

“What do you know?” I said. “Put a tweed coat on this guy, and he fits in at any faculty meeting anywhere.”

Cassius grunted. Fingered his Sig.

“Doesn’t matter,” I said.

We headed up the mountain road from town. In not quite a fishtail we rounded a bend above the lake, and there Ugo’s chalet soared its three stories of gables and turrets into the night. Once I’d dreamed gentleman thieving would buy me such a place, or maybe something Cary Grant-style overlooking a Mediterranean harbor, with starlets and jazzmen for neighbors. Nope, it bought me getting dumped in an ice chasm.

Government. I should’ve gone into big government.

 

At 11:03 p.m. Cassius jumped the caretaker. This was at a pine grove below Ugo’s place, where we’d stashed the car and hurried on our gloves and balaclavas. The caretaker tried his luck getting loose, but the tussle ended how it started, with him panting grappa fumes through a Corsican paw clamped over his mouth. Luck. I could have warned him not to bother.

Cassius seemed to enjoy his shaking the magic code numbers loose from the guy. I apologized on behalf of the thieving union and double-checked the numbers against dust I’d sprayed over the keypad. Four greasy whorls and smudges matched our numbers. Once inside I clicked a mental stopwatch: twenty minutes, my quota for all a plan could reliably discount random events. I lost five of those minutes putting the main alarm controls to sleep, barely needing the German handwritten instructions.

It was a shame going out so young and sharp.

“Tie our pal up,” I said to Cassius. His dull eyes shimmered, so I added, “And don’t hurt him.”

Ugo kept a library crammed with hardbound volumes: histories, philosophy, poetry, the legally acquired stuff. I needed Ugo’s illegal section, rare papal manuscript aisle. Somewhere sheltered from sunlight and uninvited guests. A private study, or a vault. I lost five more minutes thumping mahogany paneling for hollow spots and inspecting bric-a-brac for hidden switches.

I should have gone straight for his wine cellar. Belowground, Ugo had built himself a man cave of leather sofas, reading tables, and manuscripts glowing in the dim light of display cases. Rare modern firsts, cartography, and illuminated folios. Now I understood the caretaker’s snorting fire at us. It was him down here adjusting for humidity and fretting away those house parties keeping the drinks off his cases.

Across the parlor beckoned Old Alexander’s manuscript, if doom could beckon. It was carefully arranged in a sealed case and spread open like a pinned falcon to Chumpsalot and Damsel. I flicked on the Mag-Lite and scoped out my every step before risking it. . . .

 

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Copyright © 2018. Book of Hours by Robert Mangeot